Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization

Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked CivilizationBy Richard Manning
North Point Press, 2004; ISBN 0865476225
Hardcover, 232 pages; $24

The greatest challenge for a reader of Richard Manning's Against the Grain may be to endure the introduction. But, from the point in the first chapter when his prose coagulates and he begins to make his case, Manning coveys his reader on an extraordinary intellectual excursion. Against the Grain is not without flaws; it is a wide net that is sometimes carelessly flung and Manning waits until late in the book to explain the distinction he draws between agriculture and farming or, more precisely, between raising commodities and raising food. But his fundamental thesis, that non-subsistence agriculture has created a cascading social and environmental calamity-beginning long ago and becoming more malignant as industry and commodity agriculture fuse-is compellingly presented.

Ten thousand years ago, while Clovis hunters were consummating the extinction of the great Ice Age mammals, barley and wheat cultivation was underway in Mesopotamia. Within a few millenia it expanded throughout the Fertile Crescent, Asia Minor and southeastern Europe. By 6,000 years ago rice and millet cultivation spread across China, maize was raised in central Mexico, an assortment of grains and tubers were growing in the Andes. But with swelling, stationary populations that agriculture made possible, writes Manning, came the end of Eden. Agriculturalists were physically inferior to hunter gatherers subject to degenerative and infectious diseases from which the former were largely free. Worse, with agriculture came inequality, then tyranny, slavery; and organized warfare; controlled, class ridden societies and an end to free, egalitarian life.

But did not agricultural societies, in accepting oppression and physical decline, at least gain security from outright starvation? Not at all, writes Manning, "Famine was the mark of a maturing agricultural society, the very badge of civilization....Poverty, government and famine co-evolved." He devotes a chapter to famines from ancient China to the Irish potato famine of 1846-1850 to the present day persistence of famine and "commodity surpluses."

Manning turns to the "revolutions" by which surpluses were obtained. The first came with hybrid corn, developed by crossing inbred varieties to achieve maximum "hybrid vigor." Hybrid corn planting in the U.S. exploded from 1% of the crop in 1933 to 50% in 1943; by the 1960's it was almost universal. The disadvantage of not retaining seed (hybrid vigor does not pass to progeny) was overwhelmed by prodigious three fold increases in production. The "green revolution" began in Mexico in 1954 when Norman Borlaug crossed dwarf wheat, with short, stiff stems to overcome the traditional limitation on wheat yield; the tendency of stems to buckle under the weight of the kernels. Within a few years varieties were available that combined swollen kernels with stalks rigid enough to hold them. The technique was replicated with rice, and today dwarf varieties account for three fourths of rice and wheat.

The book concludes with an exposition of the almost apocalyptic costs of these achievements. One memorable passage recounts a journey across mid-America, now a monoculture of wheat, corn and soybeans from which a million farm families have vanished since 1970 to the HQ of Archer Daniels Midland, the premier processor of corn and producer of fructose. It is the domination of fructose, with which processed foods are liberally laced (read the labels!), says Manning that creates the epidemic obesity with which America is assailed. Another describes his pilgrimage to Ciudad Obregon, Mexico where the green revolution began and farming is now thoroughly modern containing even American style hog factories. And just as modern agriculture has created an 8,000 square mile dead zone expanding into the Gulf of Mexico, a daily load of nitrates and agricultural poisons pour down the Yaqui River into the Sea of Cortez.

There is much in Manning's book with which one may not agree. His view that plants have, in effect, domesticated humans rather than the contrary, can be seen as insightful or absurd. His attacks on grain farming approach fanaticism. His prescription for pulling ourselves from disaster-farmers markets, locally grown produce-are unremarkable, the final chapter dispensable. But the book's powerful vision of commodity agriculture, industry and politics as a single, devouring colossus and the underlying governor of human and environmental events makes Against the Grain an important, even pioneering book. Few who read it will regard the world in quite the same way. -by Tom Garrett